Stop complaining about “the media” and let’s do something about it

I’m worried about my son. He’s 10, and like all kids his age, he’s intensely curious about the world around him. He asks questions all the time. He always has great questions.

But the other day he started to ask me something. “Mom, why did September 11th happen?” Before I could answer, he interrupted with “You’re busy. I can just look it up.”

Normally it would be great for him to show that kind of initiative. But here’s the problem.

If he typed “why did September 11 happen” he’d likely get a bunch of reasonably informative results at the top of the list.

But if he added one word, and instead asked “why did September 11 really happen” he’d enter a cesspool of conspiracy theories, fake news and propaganda. A whirling, swirling mess for a young mind to make sense of at the moment he’s figuring out what matters to him, what he believes in, who he is.

Media is failing. But there is a way forward.

Do you see the same colour red as me? Do you worry about the future of democracy? Do you know what’s going on in Syria?

We all see the world around us in our particular way — these are the filters that sharpen and cloud our vision.

We all see the world around us in our particular way. With the things we’ve been exposed to, the opinions we’ve formed, and the energy you have right now as you’re reading this — these are the filters that sharpen and cloud our vision.

Today, hundreds of millions of citizens go online every day, 62% to social media platforms, to be informed about the world around them.

It started as friendly updates — reconnecting with an old classmate, photos from a faraway cousin, video of a first dance at a wedding — and grew into algorithms pushing streams of news content reinforcing our preexisting beliefs.

But in our easy social media life, we have abdicated editorial judgment to machine learning; we are increasingly sheltered from opposing viewpoints and reliable news sources, resulting in filter bubbles and a vicious polarization of national politics across democratic states.

Tech giants like Facebook argue they shouldn’t be considered media companies, and they aren’t. But social media and search algorithms have become an outsize influence in crafting all of our understanding of the events that take place around us — the core function of media.

With traditional news and information sources declining in use and trust among millennials, fake news from hyper-bipartisan sites dominating distribution on digital platforms, and an informed citizenry being essential to a healthy democracy — there is no issue more critical today.

All of this is why I left a powerful role as Director of Digital at CBC; because I couldn’t do what needed to happen from within.

The entire media landscape has been displaced by the digital age and its endless barrage of crushing challenges thrown on crumbling frameworks.

The unrelenting demand for innovation is something legacy media models simply cannot address. We can blame hubris, or greed, or the stasis that comes from being comfortably ‘in control’. But we have no time to blame. We need to change.

Public broadcasting is one thing. Public media in a digital age is entirely another. What I am working on now is public media for the next generation.

Social media and search algorithms have become an outsize influence in crafting all of our understanding of the events that take place around us — the core function of media.

The world’s public broadcasters need to deliver on their mandates through a broadcast-first posture. I get that. Many of their mandates were written before the internet went mainstream. All of them were written before platforms like Facebook became the dominant distributors of the news that forms our understanding of the world and our place in it.

There will be a large contingent of the public that will rely on broadcast and other legacy media platforms for the next 15, maybe even 20 years. I fully get that too, and I support the efforts of most of our public broadcasters and other legacy media, including the CBC, who are trying to chart a path for that period of transition.

However, as evidenced by the recent American elections, next generation platforms like Facebook have become our de facto public media channels and they have enormous influence over how we understand each other and ourselves.

Their algorithms and our narrowing filter bubbles will continue to fail to provide balanced, diverse information to our citizens, unless we, the public, do something about it. Now.

Filter bubbles and fake news aside, platforms like Facebook were built to maximize engagement and thus advertising revenues, a business model that prevents them from facing this new challenge honestly and effectively.

I believe the near future sits in between, where technology is deployed in conjunction with human judgment, curiosity and empathy to help us better understand the world around us, and ourselves.

A new era in media is upon us: the pendulum has swung from the ‘all human’ traditional media platforms of the past, to ‘all algorithm’ platforms of the present. The future is where technology dovetails with humanity. This new approach is what we’re building at Vubble.

How do we plan to do that?

It’s quite simple. We use technology to filter the web, humans to add the serendipity and empathy only we can, and machine learning to bring you news that otherwise wouldn’t show up in your regular feeds, bursting your filter bubble with a machine-learning system that is transparent and routinely audited — by humans — to defiantly counter bias.

But we’re not quite there yet, and we need your help.

For the past year, we’ve been testing out our algorithm and editorial chops. You can sign up for our daily newsletter here. That will bring you the strongest video of the day from what we’ve selected for our paying clients (largely science, environment and media right now, though we’re working hard to expand that). You can also like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter, where we share some of the video worth shining a light on.

If you’re a brand, you can join our network of clients and get a 24/7 dynamic feed of the best video related to your interests — we’ll filter out fake news, lousy and noisy content, and give you articulate, engaging and real stories to share with your customers. Help us build out the virtual library and open the doors to the public for free.

It’s a win-win for us all.

Because that’s the point. We need to see each other’s point of view, especially when it’s outside of our comfort zone. We need to understand enough of each other — to see ourselves. And we need to show that empathy, that common ground, to the next generation.

What else is there, if we fail?

Tessa Sproule is the CEO and Co-Founder of Vubble Inc., a Canadian media technology company that offers a suite of products that curate, assess and distribute personalized delivery of the world’s best video content, using our proprietary system of advanced artificial intelligence technology and human curation.